What is it?
The most important model for Volvo in 20 years. So say those running the company, and we wouldn’t disagree. With the upheaval of a change of ownership, and years of models that are not quite good enough behind them, Volvo needs the V40 (which replaces both the V50 and S40 model lines) to compete with the established competition in every objective way rather than relying on Scandinavian chic to get it sales.
On paper things are looking good for the V40. It has the crucial low-emission-model in the fleet-friendly 94g/km D2 variant, and there is an array of more powerful four and five-cylinder diesel and petrol engines to satisfy those with a desire for something a bit more vigorous.
We’re testing the most powerful diesel model, the 175bhp five-pot D4 complete with the standard six-speed ‘box.
What is it like?
Something of a revelation for Volvo. It may be a Ford Focus underneath but you’d not know it from the sleek, stand-out looks and the plush-feeling interior in our SE Nav test car. You immediately feel cocooned and supported by the impressively squidgy, comfortable seats, even if you will just as quickly be perplexed by the fairly complex if beautifully clear digital readouts behind the wheel. You have the option of three ‘themes’ — performance, elegance, and eco — and there are also three different steering settings as standard, each accessed via another branch of the sub-menu, all controlled via the indicator stalk.
In practice, the variable steering doesn’t make a huge amount of difference but regardless of that the dynamics are one of the biggest steps forward with this car. Mind you, the steering is not the stand-out element. It’s a little numb and has an odd rubbery resistance around the dead-ahead that only serves to emphasise the artificial feel. But it responds well and weights up nicely, and most importantly it allows you to make the most of the neutral, grippy dynamics. It’s easy to place the nose precisely and the V40 is impressively resistant to both understeer and torque-steer, making this a gratifyingly smooth and rapid steer even on the most challenging of B-roads.
However, there are some niggles, in particular with the D4. Our test car rode on standard 17-inch wheels and it did fidget over some of the typically British, undulating Tarmac, even if it remained free enough of substantial thumping and jarring. That said, we doubt that anybody will be particularly put-out by the occasional dive and shimmy at higher speeds.
The motor itself is also a little frustrating if you want to use it to make progress along more challenging roads. It’s perfect for cruising, when the V40 also makes for refined and soothing transport. But this motor suffers from a very boosty power delivery and offers little of the finesse and elasticity of the best diesels found in the class. Peak torque of 325lb ft arrives in a great stampede between 1750 and 2750rpm and then runs out of energy fairly soon. More frustrating is that the ratios too often leave you needing a down-change in order to exit the basement of unresponsiveness at the bottom end of the rev range and get you back into the turbo zone.
Taking all this into account, plus the low emissions and very competitive spec that includes Bluetooth and some elements of the company’s new safety tech as standard even in base models, the Volvo V40 is a clearly a comprehensive package. But, sadly, it is not a class-leading one.
The lower-powered D3 goes a long way to solving the uneven power delivery that blights the D4 somewhat, and is our preferred model in the range, but regardless, the powertrains in the V40 don’t match up to those in the Audi A3 and BMW 1-series. Equally, the user interface is not as intuitive, and the boot suffers from a high load lip and is a slightly awkward shape.
Should I buy one?
Having clarified that there are objective shortfalls in the V40’s arsenal, we would still vouch for it wholeheartedly. This new model represents a huge leap forward for the company, and is a very promising one given that it is the first model to be launched under Chinese ownership. It is close to offering everything that the more established rivals manage in terms of dynamics, efficiency figures and purchase and residual values. Crucially, Volvo has managed to intensify further that ethereal and unique character and sense of occasion that has set it apart over the years. It remains one of its strongest assets.
Unfortunately, the Volvo V40 remains a car that you will buy because you want to be different rather than because it is the best of its kind. But with this new model that decision brings with it only marginal compromises that are wholly acceptable in the name of having a car that, subjectively, has such huge appeal.
Volvo V40 D4 SE Nav
Price: £24,795; Top speed: 137mph; 0-60mph: 8.2sec; Economy: 65.7mpg (combined); CO2: 114g/km; Kerb weight: 1484kg; Engine type: 1984cc, 5 cyl in-line, turbodiesel; Power: 175bhp at 3500rpm; Torque: 325lb ft at 1750-2750rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual